TULARE, Calif. — Basking in the results of a poll that puts her 20 points ahead of her nearest Democratic rival, Kathleen Brown drove into this little farming town Wednesday and got wet.
Rain dribbled out of the sky as Brown's campaign bus arrived at Perry's Chuck Wagon truck stop. But that was nothing, compared to what was waiting for Brown when she stepped off the bus and strode into the small crowd: a walnut farmer with ostrich-skin boots and a lot of tough questions about water.
"My position is that water is an absolutely precious resource and that agriculture is an industry that is No. 1 in California," Brown told the farmer, a Republican named Jim Verboon. She asked Verboon if he was conserving water and talked to him about reallocation.
But Verboon, who farms 100 acres near Layton, wasn't satisfied. Brown, he said later, had given him "kind of a shine-on--a standard answer that doesn't tell you much."
A little farther south, when the bus pulled up at Perko's Koffee Kup in Delano, the drizzle had lifted. But the questions kept coming. Leon Moore, a grape farmer, called out his query from where he sat in an orange and green booth: Where did Brown stand on water?
"Water is a big issue in the Valley," Brown said carefully.
"That," Moore muttered, "we know."
Since May 7, when she kicked off her so-called California Jobs Bus Tour, Brown has spent several days rolling around the state. On previous jaunts, the 48-year-old state treasurer has toured Northern and Southern California. But on Wednesday, she ventured into the agricultural belt.
Brown said she was traveling by bus "so I can be as close to the people of California as possible and to let serendipity take us to the highways and byways."
"I like truck stops. You meet interesting people there," she told the throng of reporters who hitched a ride with her. "I like to stop, check it out, and hopefully meet voters."
One TV cameraman was incredulous. "Are there really going to be voters there?" he asked.
"That's what we'll find out," said Brown happily. "You never know."
By day's end, serendipity would bring Brown face to face with several dozen voters. More than a few, however, couldn't vote for her in the June 7 primary even if they wanted to--they were registered Republican.
The tour, touted as a chance for Brown to "localize" her indictment of Gov. Pete Wilson, began at a truck trailer plant in Fresno that had shut its doors in 1992. Brown arrived at the plant's deserted parking lot in mid-morning, determined to talk about her pledge to create 1 million jobs.
"Actually, 1 million jobs plus one," she said. "Because Pete Wilson's going to need one."
But in Fresno, too, the water issue cropped up.
When a local television reporter asked if she supports the Miller-Bradley bill, which rewrote federal water policy in favor of environmental and urban interests, she said, "It's the law. Let's stop talking about history and let's start talking about the future."
A few minutes later, at a Fresno shopping mall, she attempted to use the foul weather to address the water issue more simply.
"I think these clouds are actually little rays of sunshine," she said. "Because they've been bringing a little rain--and isn't water what we want?"
The crowd, which was decked out in Brown buttons and hats and waved Brown campaign placards, applauded Brown's joke. But if Verboon, the walnut farmer, had been there, he would have told her that rain this early in the season is bad news for many farmers.
"If you grow cotton or alfalfa, it's not good," he said later. "It's not good for fruit either. It's unfortunate weather."
But then that's what Brown had said her bus tour was for: to listen and to learn.
"I love learning from the people of this state what their hopes and aspirations are," she said as her bus rolled along California 99.
And Brown is nothing if not a good listener. Her speaking style may be wooden at times, but one on one, she is nearly irresistible--warm, attentive and accessible. All day Wednesday, she asked people about themselves, their families, their troubles. She seemed to enjoy the chance to make small talk.
In Kingsburg, Brown wandered into an antique co-op.
"Fiesta china--can you believe how popular that is now?" she asked one of the vendors, Karen Grilione. "I'm a garage sale and antiques lover."
Then came the questions. How was business, Brown wanted to know. Where had Grilione grown up? Had she lived in Kingsburg all her life?
"I love California," Grilione said.
"Me, too," Brown said. "And I'd love to have your vote."
In Bakersfield, the site of a trucking plant that has moved out of state served as the backdrop for more talk about the need for new, quality jobs. But Brown lit up the brightest when she was introduced to a small girl with sand dollar earrings and pink jacket who said her name was Vanessa.
"Vanessa!" Brown said. "I just had a brand new grandbaby and do you know what her name is? Vanessa!"
The girl looked shyly at the ground.